2007 Denver International Film Festival
Richard Gazowsky, a Pentecostal pastor from San Francisco, has a dream. Despite not having seen an actual movie until the age of forty, knowing nothing whatsoever about the craft of filmmaking, and possessing not a shred of business acumen, the plucky and rotund Mr. Gazowsky, blessed by a vision from God while praying on top of a mountain, believes it is his mission to make a science fiction movie with Biblical underpinnings. Sacked with the truly awful title, Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph, it is described as “Star Wars meets The Ten Commandments,” but from what dialogue we hear (along with the sets and costumes we see), it would be more accurate to say that Ed Wood had come back from the dead and decided to shoot a remake of Battlefield Earth. Thankfully, actual filmmaker Mike Jacobs was there to document the entire process, with the result being one of the most hilarious portraits of sheer incompetence ever filmed. That it also proves yet again that religion is humanity’s most entertaining mental illness is but the cherry atop the sundae. And how could such a grandiose plan ever hope to succeed, anyway? Even Richard’s mother dismisses the lad as a naďve buffoon.
Richard’s congregation barely fills a few rows, but he’s convinced he can use their donations as a springboard for the world’s most impressive motion picture event (having also started a film company named WYSIWYG — “What You See Is What You Get”). Claiming at every turn to have sufficient funding from German investors, the amount mysteriously turns from a respectable $600,000 to over $200 million in the span of a few months. No one is actually being paid, of course, but why else have faith? Interestingly, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors actually require cash in hand to continue extending a lease for a massive production facility on Treasure Island, which naturally prompts several church members to accuse Satan of not playing fair. Nevertheless, Richard holds casting calls, not bothering to filter for actual talent, and at one point, convinces cast and crew alike to ship the production to Italy for a precious 5-day shoot. Needless to say, everything goes wrong — from jammed cameras to unfinished sets — though no one bothers to mention that such trials and tribulations are inevitable when the director has no fucking clue what he’s doing. Only two actual scenes are completed, each lasting a few seconds, and consisting of no more than a mess of characters wandering aimlessly. But in Richard’s mind, these shots are pure genius, and he cries enthusiastically, as if having filmed the chariot race from Ben-Hur. One of these scenes even involves a semi-conscious derelict, the sort of man you’d expect to embrace Jesus, though not fly around the world to shoot a movie.
Predictably, these two scenes are the sum total of completed work for the entire project, as bills come due, the electricity is turned off, and angry crew members flee in droves. But Richard is convinced that he’s called by God to make this movie, and his children rally the faithful in scenes of much convulsing, speaking in tongues, and semi-improvised break dancing. People join hands, sing in glassy-eyed rapture, and call upon the holy spirit, though no actual money comes through the door. Throughout, one can’t help but think that as riotous as it was that this sad man tried to make an epic film with no money or talent, it would have been far better had he actually succeeded. A futuristic story of Joseph? Complete with what Richard describes as “a space age Starbucks”? The 21st century would have had its comedic masterpiece at last. Even had some psycho kraut come up with the hundreds of millions of dollars to finance the madness, the script would have remained the deluded ramblings of a deranged pastor. As such, it would be easy to chalk up Richard’s adventure to the big con (nothing he ever promises comes to pass), but it’s all too clear that he’s genuinely convinced of his own importance. Brilliant acting just isn’t on this man’s radar screen.
And by the end, when he’s sobbing along with his now shattered congregation, he’s less a pathetic figure because he believes in the fairy tale of religion than due to his adherence to the American sense of entitlement that brands all aspirations as valid, and all artistic impulses as worthy of pursuit. And then, with a shot, as he reveals his plans to start an airline, colonize another planet, start construction on Christian theme parks, release 47 films a year, and open resort towns across the globe, we understand that while faith often makes a man a little fucked in the head, it is the fucked in the head who turn to faith in the first place. For only there can failed dreams and ridiculous ambitions find a blameless, forgiving home. The rest of us, it seems, might want to be paid for our efforts. Or at the very least, we’d like to see it in writing.